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Beach Erosion A Safety Concern, Says Experts

More than a month after Hurricane Sally made landfall as a nearly Category 3 storm, the impacts are still evident on local beaches. 

While Sally made landfall near Gulf Shores, Ala., it was the beaches to the east that took a bigger hit, said Frederique Beroset, biologist and founder of Dune Doctors

Preliminary assessments show Navarre Beach lost about 100 million cubic yards of sand. The sand loss is worse at the easternmost and westernmost points of the beach. The dunes are clearly eroded, Beroset said. On Pensacola Beach, storm surge peaked at 5.6 feet – the third highest on record for the area. For reference, Hurricane Ivan peaked at 9.54 feet.

Beaches are, for the most part, pretty resilient environments. They can rebuild on their own, but it’s a long process.

“Mother Nature over time is going to build the dunes, and plants are going to grow,” said Beroset. “It’s going to take a long time, but sand is going to eventually accumulate.”

“(Santa Rosa Island) is a barrier island which is basically a sand bar, the sand will shift in one direction; a lot of the sand that was taken away in the storm is sitting in another sand bar. Chances are with the different currents, storms, a lot of that sand is going to find its way back to the beach, not all of it, but some of it is eventually going to come back.”

Renourishment, which is when sand is dredged offshore and piped onto the beach, is a lengthy and costly endeavor.  The last time Santa Rosa Island Authority renourished all eight miles of Pensacola Beach was in 2016. That was also the same year Navarre Beach was renourished. 

SRIA Executive Director Paolo Ghio said there are “many steps left” to determine what impact Hurricane Sally left on the beach.  

And until renourishment, there are other projects that can accelerate the process, which is where Beroset comes in. She founded Dune Doctors in 2000 after she was asked to help with renourishment efforts after Hurricanes Erin and Opal. 

After storms, Beroset and her team at Dune Doctors work with beachfront property owners and local governments by building sand fences in specific patterns so that sand accumulation is even throughout a property, and they add native vegetation to stabilize surviving dunes. 

“We try to use a wide variety of plants, we use at least six different native grasses and ground covers combined, then we also add some dune sunflowers and blanket flowers for color but they also help participate in the health of that ecosystem,” she said. “The dune sunflowers for example will provide seed source for the beach mice and the crabs and other wildlife.”

The wildlife was also largely affected by Hurricane Sally. Fortunately, the mating and nesting season for regional birds such as least terns, black skimmers, and snowy plovers ended two weeks before the storm, but more than a dozen sea turtle nests were destroyed — 11 in Escambia and three in Santa Rosa County. 

Fourteen sea turtle nests survived in Escambia, and Santa Rosa County saw a 90% hatchling average, according to data from Kathy Holmes of the Sea Turtle Conservancy in Navarre, and Escambia County Marine Resources Manager Robert Turpin. 

For those who can get to the beach, while the Pensacola Bay Bridge is out of commission, it may seem fairly normal. But Beroset warns that even a month after the storm, there are potential hazards for people. Debris such as roofing nails and exposed wires from fences are a few of the dangerous things.

On the beach outside a client’s home on Ariola Drive, Beroset points to the eroded dunes. A concern right now, she said, are the eroded sand dunes that could collapse. 

“It’s going to be even more pressing in the next several months,” she said. “The storm cuts the sand dunes in a fairly vertical cliff. That cliff is going to dry; that sand is going to dry. And sand just does not stay vertical and that cliff is going to collapse.”

It’s one of the reasons why walking on dunes is one of her “pet peeves.” But even without erosion, she says using proper beach accesses is the best way to stay safe and protect the dunes so they can protect you. 

“These dunes are here for everybody — for animals, plants — that benefit from the protective barrier that dunes create,” she said. “The foremost reason for dunes to exist is to be a barrier from salt spray and wind for the wildlife and native vegetation to have a chance to establish and grow.”